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Smart Buying

Video in Your Pocket

Big memories and sleek designs offset the disadvantages of small screens.

First came sound: the Walkman, then the MP3 player. Now you can add sight to the sound. Portable video players with tiny screens and capacious hard drives store more than 100 hours of video plus thousands of songs and photos.


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With screens of less than 5 inches measured diagonally, they won't blow you away with The Lord of the Rings' special effects. But the screens are good enough to watch Desperate Housewives on the subway or on an airplane or in the doctor's waiting room. The players are compact enough to fit in a shirt pocket, backpack or purse (although they're about a half-inch thicker than today's ultra-slim audio devices). And unlike portable DVD players, they don't require you to tote around a stack of discs.

You'll have to sign up with an online video-download site to use these devices. Three of the most popular at the moment are CinemaNow, iTunes and Vongo, which charge from $2 to $38 to rent or buy videos. Here's where it gets confusing: Not all sites are compatible with every player. The iPod, for instance, works with Apple's iTunes but not with CinemaNow. And a download from Vongo can play either on your video player or your computer, but not on both.

Zen master

Creative Zen Vision
Price: $400
Screen size: 3.7 inches
Video storage: 120 hours


Our overall favorite has intuitive button controls and on-screen menus, although they lack the elegance of the iPod's click wheel. But the Zen boasts extras the iPod doesn't, including an FM-radio tuner, a memory-card slot for importing photos from a digital camera and an external speaker that lets you skip the earbuds. One drawback: The Zen works only with Windows-based PCs, not Macs. Want a bigger screen? The new Zen Vision W measures 4.3 inches diagonally.

Pared-down Apple

30GB iPod
Price: $250
Screen size: 2.5 inches
Video storage: 75 hours

No worries for the Apple crowd: The 30-gigabyte iPod is a solid video player, albeit with a tiny display that's about half as big as the Zen's. Despite its pee-wee proportions, the iPod screen is bright, colorful and acceptable for the boob-tube fare available at iTunes, which just started offering feature films. Its tight integration with iTunes makes downloading shows a snap. What's missing? An FM tuner would be nice, as would compatibility with a wider selection of download sites beyond iTunes. We were able to download iPod-friendly videos at ABC Family, however. If you want to store more than, say, 75 hours of Seinfeld, check out Apple's new 80GB iPod ($350), which features a brighter, higher-resolution screen.

Control freak

Toshiba Gigabeat
Price: $400
Screen size: 2.4 inches
Video storage: 255 hours


The $400 Toshiba Gigabeat's menu system is a breeze to navigate -- particularly for users of Windows Media Center PCs, which have a similar interface. The screen, like that of the iPod, is small yet sharp, and its ability to switch between landscape and portrait modes is handy for video viewing. Toshiba also offers a Gigabeat model for $100 less that stores half as much, and just introduced a Gigabeat with a 3.5-inch screen. Like the Zen, it includes an FM tuner and doesn't speak Mac.